HURON – A framework for comprehensive immigration reform is an encouraging start, but South Dakota’s senators are withholding their support until they see the specific legislative language.
But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., agree the immigration system is broken and steps must be taken to fix it.
It is a pillar of President Obama’s second term. And Republicans are being encouraged by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that they must be part of a solution or continue to face losses at the ballot box.
Asked if he agrees with McCain’s warning, Thune said Republicans do need to be part of the immigration system fix.
“I think it’s a long overdue conversation,” he said. “It’s complicated.”
The issues create great conflict among Republicans and Democrats, and there are many outside constituencies like labor unions that are involved, he said.
“We have to recognize when we approach this issue it’s not going to be easy to fix, but we’ve got to get into it,” Thune said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters.
Eight senators earlier this week signed onto the bipartisan immigration reform framework that would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
It would secure the border, attempt to simplify legal immigration and add requirements for employers to prevent hiring of illegal immigrants.
Johnson agrees something must be done to address border security. He called the framework a good start, but that it’s just a proposal.
“The devil is in the details,” he said in a separate conference call. “But I’m hopeful that some kind of comprehensive legislation is possible.”
Obama had a 71-27 percent victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in November among Latino voters, and McCain warned Republicans defections from the GOP would continue unless Congress addresses immigration reform.
While Thune is hesitant to comment until he sees specific language, he said the framework introduced by four Democrats and four Republicans includes provisions he can support. They include skill-based and merit-based immigration, border security and workplace verification.
But the issue becomes more contentious when considering how to deal with people who are here illegally.
One other issue is that of a separate path to citizenship for those working in the agriculture industry.
It doesn’t necessarily apply to South Dakota because most of the crops are harvested mechanically, but Thune also notes that the state does need workers in agriculture processing facilities.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws, he said. A separate channel for ag workers may not be the way to proceed.
Johnson was also asked about a distinction for ag workers.
“The path to citizenship should not be divided up by category as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
The senators were also asked for their thoughts on a bill passed by the state House that would allow teachers to be armed in South Dakota schools as a deterrent to attacks.
Johnson declined to comment about an issue before the state Legislature.
Thune said he hasn’t read the bill, but has seen some reports in the media.
Much of what happens has to be shaped by input by school districts and others who are most impacted, he said.
He would have no objections if it was the local decision to have trained people at the school in the event of an incident.
“But I just think those decisions have to be shaped largely by the people who are affected,” Thune said. “I think we need to rely very heavily on their input when we make decisions like this.”
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